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Science and Technology

Exploradio - Blue Penguins and other mysteries
Feather researchers in Akron use fossil evidence to determine coloring of an extinct dinosaur and make a new discovery along the way
This story is part of a special series.

Reporter / Host
Jeff St. Clair
Blue penguin chicks from Phillips Island, Australia. The blue color comes from light scattered by nano-structures in their feathers. These structures are unique to penguins.
Courtesy of M. Kuhn, creative commons
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Books on dinosaurs tend to paint them in fanciful colors, from Barney purple to day-glo orange.  Now scientists can tell artists the true colors of at least one extinct dinosaur.   

In this first installment of Exploradio, a weekly series exploring science and innovation in Northeast Ohio, we look at how researchers at the University of Akron started off studying penguins and ended up with a picture of a dinosaur …

Exploradio - Blue penguins

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Little Penguins are native to Australia and New Zealand. 

They’re the smallest penguin species, which is why they’re called Little Penguins, but they’re unique in another way… in the right light they’re an iridescent blue - which why they’re also called Little Blue Penguins.

And it turns out the feathers of the Little Blue Penguin produce the blue color in a way that is different from any other blue bird –

Matthew Shawkey is a biology professor at the University of Akron who studies feathers – he says that the blue color we see in Blue Penguins and other birds is a trick played on our eyes by the way their feathers reflect light –

“There’s no blue pigment in a bluebird for example, or a blue jay, or an indigo bunting or any of these other birds, they’re made by light scattering in these nano structures.”

These nano structures, very small bundles of the protein Beta Keratin on the surface of the feather,  reflect light in such a way that the bird appears blue.  And Shawkey says there are two ways that this structure works  -  at least there were two known ways until he and his team looked at Blue Penguins and discovered a third type of blue feather.

 “the mechanism is actually the same, it’s coherent light scattering…”

Shawkey is fond of food analogies – he says the structures in the first type look like grapes, the second cooked spaghetti , and the newly discovered third structure looks like…

“Uncooked spaghetti so, just straight linear fibers that you can imagine a fist full of uncooked spaghetti and looking down on it, that’s more or less what they looked like.”

It was actually his research partner Liliana D’Alba who made the discovery.

“First thing I thought was it was a very beautiful structure to see in the microscope because most of the samples I had seen before that, they were kind of boring.”

But why were they looking at penguin feathers to begin with…?

Shawkey and Alba made their discovery of the unique blue color of Blue Penguins as an offshoot of another penguin project looking at larger color-producing structures in feathers called melanosomes. 

Melanosomes contain packets of melanin, something  almost all animals have, including people, that produces skin color, freckles…even red hair or green eyes.

“So we were working on a project were they had fossilized melanosomes in this giant penguin which is an ancestor of modern penguins, about 36 million years old.”

Yes, a giant penguin.  It’s called Incayacu paracasensis, stood 5 feet tall and lived in what is now Peru. 

By comparing its melanosomes to modern penguins they discovered that this extinct giant did not wear a typical penguin tuxedo.   It was reddish brown with a gray underside.

Then Shawkey and his team looked at colors in birds of another feather,  and …

“we were able to build a model where we could predict color from shape of melanosomes pretty accurately.”

That’s when a colleague showed them melanosomes from a feathered dinosaur. 

Birds are descendants of dinosaurs.  Scientists believe feathers evolved early on in dinosaurs for reasons other than flying- perhaps for insulation, courtship, or defense -  and birds eventually split off.  Even the famous, and ferocious, velociraptors from Jurassic Park are believed to have been covered with feathers.  New fossils from China preserve details of dinosaur feathers that include imprints of melanosomes.

In Akron, Shawkey was able to match his database of melanosomes from living birds to show the true colors of an extinct dinosaur.

Anchiornis, or “near-bird”, was discovered in China in 2009.  About the size of a crow, Anchiornis was a much better runner than flyer, despite being feathered from head to toe.

And now for the first time, we know what a dinosaur looked like -  a red crest with black wings and body and dramatic flashes of white feathers.

Shawkey says the discovery satisfies another creative longing –

“We’ve been taught since elementary school that we’re never know the colors of dinosaurs and when you look in a dinosaur book it’s just made-up, there’s a little bit of science behind it, but for the most part it’s where the dinosaur illustrator gets to be creative.”

Matthew Shawkey’s exploration of fossil feather colors and the discovery of a new type of blue in Blue Penguins taught him another lesson –   that we may not know as much as we think we do.

“Keep testing your assumptions is what you really need to do -  you have a set of assumptions that you work with in your daily life as a scientist but then whenever you get an opportunity to test those assumptions its always worth doing.”

Shawkey says in science, as in everyday life, just because you think you know something, doesn’t mean there aren’t surprises waiting to be discovered….

Related Links & Resources
U. of Akron - Blue Penguin page

U. of Akron - feathered dinosaur webpage

Wired Science on the Giant Penguin

Little Blue Penguin at the Cincinnati Zoo

Giant penguin feathers

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